As Mobile Hardware Innovation Slows, Software Takes Over

Since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, mobile devices have taken center stage in the tech world — browsers, apps, advertising, and more have been transformed thanks to our handheld computers. A compelling trend that’s been notably altered from the rise of mobile is the dynamic relationship between hardware and software — in this case, the smartphone and its operating system.

Just this fall, Apple released the seventh version of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. Its introduction at WWDC in June was met with polarized reactions, as all Apple events are these days, but as the first major overhaul to iOS in its lifetime, the effect on users would prove interesting to monitor.

According to data from Fiksu, it took just four days after release for the number of Apple devices running iOS 7 to outweigh devices running iOS 6. As of today, November 6, 72.4% of devices are on iOS 7, compared to 23.7% on iOS 6 and 3.8% on iOS 5. What’s more, the adoption rate of Apple’s newest operating system has outpaced both versions before it. This many days after release for iOS 6, the total usage sat at 64.9%. For iOS 5, 52.8%. This suggests that more and more, users are craving the latest advancements in software to enhance the capabilities and experience of their devices.

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By comparison, just 52.1% of Android devices are running Jelly Bean, the latest OS, a year and a half beyond its initial release. Going deeper, it appears that most of those users are on the older 4.1 version at 37.%, with 12.5% on 4.2, and 2.3% on 4.3. While upgrading on Android devices is much different than Apple, as not all devices support the latest versions, this data still suggests that Android users are less concerned with having the most advanced software on their devices.

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This raises a compelling question in the realm of user experience. What is more important to a delightful and productive mobile device: the mobile hardware itself, or the operating system that it runs on? With Apple products, the answer seems to increasingly favor iOS. Apple has always been lauded for the simplicity and beauty of its iPhones and iPads, but as the innovation of the devices themselves has plateaued, it’s no surprise to see a heavier emphasis placed on iOS with the latest version. Interestingly, the launch of the iPhone 5C’s color offering was even strategically designed to match iOS 7’s bright UI. Each 5C comes preloaded with a background in the same color as the phone’s plastic casing, slightly blurring the lines between hardware and software.

Perhaps it’s because Android’s updates typically have not changed the functionality and feel of an Android phone as drastically as iOS 7 did for the iPhone that adoption rates are much lower. Perhaps it has to do with the severe fragmentation of Android phone manufacturers. Regardless, as smartphone hardware innovations have slowed, it becomes more crucial for operating systems to engage and entertain users in new ways. Apple seems to have successfully begun a melding of its devices with iOS, and this hybrid focus seems to be a formula for success in building great user experiences on mobile. Android will soon release 4.4 KitKat, and their strategy in this regard will be interesting to watch. As for whether the strategy involves stressing OS over hardware, that remains to be seen.

And time will tell how the users respond.